Imperial leaders responsible for ‘a culture of bullying,’ independent report found

Comments like ‘one-armed black lesbian’ were allowed in ‘troubling’ workplace culture

An independent report into Imperial College found the president and chief financial officer at fault for condoning a culture of “favouritism, exclusion, the making of disparaging comments about others and at times a lack of respect for others.”

President Prof. Alice Gast’s “adverse, abrupt and unempathetic treatment” of staff was revealed alongside CFO Muir Sanderson’s comments and behaviours that were “abhorrent in a modern workplace and at odds with the values of the College.”

Both have apologised and are still holding their positions despite motions of no confidence from the SU and UCU, with Prof. Gast remaining the highest-paid uni official in the UK. 

The independent investigation went on from 2019 to 2020 and involved accounts from more than 50 staff at Imperial.

It found that both the president and CFO contributed to “a culture of favouritism: you are ‘in or out’; ‘the favourite child’; ‘a hero or zero’; or in the ‘in gang or out gang.'”

In a specific incident, the president was found to have “exercised her position in such a way as to undermine [an anonymised victim] both personally and professionally,” causing them to suffer “from lack of sleep and weight loss.” 

The CFO was found to have displayed “alpha male’ behaviours” and made disparaging comments that “suggest negative treatment relating to other protected characteristics.” Some evidence cited in the report includes the expressions “watch your tone, young lady” and “[leaving] the plantation.”

The investigator said: “It is troubling in this day and age that one of the most senior employees at an institution like Imperial College should think that a comment made by a [former senior staff of the uni] referring to a ‘one-armed black lesbian’ should be treated as a joke and that comments relating to disability should have been approached in the manner that they were by [Sanderson] during investigation.”

There were also allegations that the CFO made dismissive comments about students, like saying he could just “fold his arms and wait for the students to graduate.”

Overall, while the findings “do not suggest a culture of bullying” at the uni, it concluded that “at the most senior level, there is a culture of making disparaging comments about, undermining and excluding others.”

The CFO, in particular, was found at fault of “behaviours that cross the line between strong management and bullying, aggressive behaviours, and the use of inappropriate and offensive language.”

The findings were shared with the uni two years ago but not published until this February due to the president’s attempt at suppressing it. The uni also allegedly tried to change the wording of its anti-bullying policy before telling students and staff about the report.

Despite apologising in 2020, both Imperial leaders came forth again after the report’s publication on 3 February.

Prof. Gast described her behaviours’ effect on victims as “personally devastating” and “pledged to use the experience as a catalyst for positive change for both me and Imperial.”

Sanderson said: “The report makes as uncomfortable reading now as it did in 2020. I have apologised for my actions and I remain sorry. I cooperated fully with the investigation and accepted the disciplinary sanctions applied.”

The sanctions evidently do not include stepping down, as both are still in position despite both the students’ union’s and UCU’s motions of no confidence.

Imperial’s SU released a statement saying that “the report paints a picture of a culture at the top of the institution without empathy, in which exclusion and disrespect are practiced and encouraged by the most senior leaders.

“Last year, the Union Council formally called for the resignation of President Alice Gast and Chief Financial Officer Muir Sanderson over the confirmed bullying incidents. Today’s report shows clearly why their position remains untenable,” the union stated.

UCU London Regional Official Barry Jones said about the report: “It is shameful that President Alice Gast and CFO Muir Sanderson still remain in post after being found to have bullied staff and treated them with such disrespect.

“UCU members report an endemic culture of bullying at Imperial, a culture which hits marginalised staff the hardest. This makes it all the more shameful that Professor Gast not only keeps her job, but continues to take home over £500,000 per year. Sadly, this systematic disregard of the dignity and wellbeing of staff by management is all too familiar across the university sector.”

“The first step towards redressing this culture of discrimination and intimidation is for senior management to be held properly to account.”

In response, Imperial’s Chair of Council, John Allen, said: “Great strides have been taken to improve Imperial’s culture – tackling underlying issues – and to become better at living up to our values. This is some of the most important work we commit to as an institution and as a community.

“Bullying is a serious matter. We must continue to challenge, investigate and act to eliminate such behaviours.”

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